F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines
Week of:
June 25, 2000
Preparing for Environmental War?

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

Since when is the environment a matter of national security?

"Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, policymakers have struggled to redefine the security interests of the United States," observes Paul Benjamin in a recent report published by the Cato Institute. "With the overriding threat of the previous half century no longer in existence, America has had to take a new look at where threats to its security may occur, and how best to deal with them," Benjamin explains. "While debate rages over what to do about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, how to redefine America's strategic relationships, and whether we need a national missile defense system, more subtle changes in security policy thinking are taking place in the background."

Benjamin worries that the concept of security is expanding and points to "a conscious shift from a limited, largely military, sense of 'security' to one that encompasses all manner of 'threats,' ranging from environmental degradation to poverty and from overpopulation to ethnic tensions. New issues are continually being classified as security issues or threats to national security," he comments. "The consequence is that a diverse set of new problems and goals is entering security discourse, and a whole range of social issues that were previously limited to the civilian sphere is increasingly falling under the purview of the U.S. military."

Benjamin cautions that "redefining security so broadly as to include environmental issues" may actually undermine our security. He sees "a high risk that turning environmental issues into a security concern will result in the militarization of environmental policy, with detrimental effects on society and on efforts to find solutions to environmental problems." He also warns that "environmental security policies may actually reduce security -- especially if they tend to push toward conflict rather than peaceful relations among nations."

Benjamin recommends paying more attention "to what elected officials and bureaucrats mean when they talk about environmental 'threats' to national security. What kind of environmental issues are so serious as to affect national security?" he asks. "Who decides which problems constitute such threats? Most important, how do they actually threaten security and what tradeoffs do counteractions entail?"

Benjamin asserts that a sensible national security policy "requires a level-headed look at what goals are worth pursuing, as well as which ones are possible and cost-effective. Thresholds need to be set to help determine at what point an environmental problem rightfully constitutes a threat. What degree of risk are we prepared to endure before taking action?" he asks. "How do the benefits compare with the costs, either of intervening or of standing by? What should rightly be left to other countries to deal with?"

Insisting that environmental policy "belongs in the civilian sphere unless there are clear, traditional national security implications," Benjamin advises "greater caution and broader debate instead of blundering ahead regardless of the consequences. Addressing environmental issues is one thing," he says; "treating them as a threat to national security is quite another. By failing to differentiate reasonably between the two concepts," Benjamin warns, "we may well find ourselves with more wars, more wasted money, and less security for all."

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